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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

14. 1889: The Volpini Exhibition

Updated: May 26, 2020

Connecting Louis Roy to Paul Gauguin was one of my first tasks. Roy was difficult to track down, but one connection was easy to find: the 1889 Exposition des artistes impressionistes et synthétistes, or, as it is commonly known, the Volpini Exhibition.

In 1889, the centennial of the French Revolution, Paris hosted the Universal Exposition. It was a world’s fair, showcasing the latest in technology, art, and colonialism from over 35 countries. There were exhibitions of locomotives and engines. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley came from America with a full complement of Native Americans. Each country hosted an art exhibition, displaying its most respected and celebrated artists.

The largest, grandest, most shocking attraction was the Eiffel Tower: a monstrous, at the time, wrought-iron structure that marked the entrance to the exposition. So monstrous, so shocking was the tower that a group of France’s leading artists and intellectuals launched a protest, saying that Eiffel’s monument would “dominate Paris like a gigantic black smokestack… stretching like a blot of ink in the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

The same artists who rejected Gustav Eiffel’s tower were in charge of choosing the art to exhibit in France’s fine arts gallery at the Exposition. They rejected out of hand the work of any artist that did not toe the academic realist line.

Respected art in France in 1889 was art that depicted realistic, recognizable scenes and people. It might not be historically realistic—it might depict nude nymphs frolicking in the forest, or muddy but happy peasants working in the fields—but it accurately represented reality. Women looked like (idealized) women. Men looked like (idealized) men. Fields looked like fields, and the sky was a predictable color.

Among those whose work was rejected from the Universal Exposition were artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Schuffenecker. Their work, and their friends' work, was experimental. Women in their paintings didn’t necessarily look like someone you might pass on the street. Fields might appear in a variety of colors, and so might the sky. Their work was almost unsellable. But they were old friends, and they had a plan to exhibit it anyway.

The Eiffel Tower was rising on the northern edge of the Left Bank when Gauguin returned to Paris from Brittany in early 1889. The tower would be opened at the end of March, and by that time Gauguin and Schuff knew that their submissions would not be hanging in the French gallery at the Universal Exposition. They began casting about for alternatives. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, even, as it turned out, millions of visitors would come through the capital during the run of the Universal Exposition. If they could get their work on some walls, somewhere, surely their work would be noticed as masterpieces by the critics and would, perhaps, who knows, even sell to some of those visitors. And sales would buy more paint and more canvas and let them settle a few of their debts.

Schuffenecker, as the more presentable and amiable of the two friends, was in charge of finding those walls. He found the Café des Arts. The Café des Arts was part of a group of temporary cafés, restaurants, and brasseries licensed and built to operate during the run of the Exposition; its owner, a Monsieur Volpini, owned two other cafés in Paris, the Café Riche on the Boulevard des Italiens and the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines, where the shop next door belonged to M. Louis Vuitton. Schuff and Gauguin had put their heads together to imagine an exhibition of work by themselves and their friends and—in Gauguin’s case—followers. Volpini had ordered gold-framed mirrors to cover the walls of his Café des Arts, but by late spring they were on back order and not scheduled to arrive in time for opening day. Schuffenecker swooped in with a solution at the moment when Volpini was contemplating his bare walls. He and his friends would provide paintings, paintings which would raise the tone and elevate the atmosphere of the establishment.

Back in Pont-Aven in early June, Gauguin wrote to Schuffenecker, congratulating him on having taken initial steps to procure an exhibition space: “Bravo! You have succeeded!...let us arrange for a small group of our friends [to join us] and, from this perspective, I want to be sure that my work is represented as much as possible.” Or, as one of my daughters used to say as a toddler: “let’s take turns. I’ll go first.” The goal of the exhibition was to gain fame and exposure (mostly for Gauguin) and to sell paintings (mostly by Gauguin). Gauguin was still broke and still trying to support an increasingly disillusioned wife and children. In his letter, he listed the paintings of his own to include and then:

You are wondering whom to invite, so:

And so it came to pass that in the summer of 1889, Louis Roy participated in the Exhibition of the Impressionist and Synthetist Group at the Café des Arts.

The final list of participants included Gauguin, Schuffenecker, Bernard, Roy, Anquetin, Laval, Fauché, and Daniel de Montfried. Almost none of the paintings sold.

Roy exhibited, in the end, seven paintings at the Cafe des Arts: a still life of pears, another still life of primroses, and several landscapes. The landscapes were painted in Gif, now known as Gif-sur-Yvette, a town of 700 souls an easy day trip from Vanves, the southwestern Paris suburb where Roy lived and taught at the Lycée Michelet.

I have not been able to locate any of these paintings, or find images of them. The Documentation Center of the Musée d’Orsay maintains files on every artist whose work is part of the French national collections. I spent a few hours paging through Roy’s file, which contains clippings and photocopies of biographical mentions of him in chronologies, timelines, and dictionaries, as well as an incomplete but still impressive collection of clippings of his works as shown in sale catalogues.This is the most complete record of Roy’s works that I have been able to find; there is no catalogue raisonné.

Documentation file, Louis Roy, Musée d'Orsay Archives

Most of these works—almost all of them—are held in private collections and have not been exhibited in exhibitions for decades if not a century or more.

But it was this exhibition that provided definitive proof from me of Roy and Gauguin's connection. If they exhibited paintings together, then it was possible--more than possible, likely--that they could have exchanged works. That, in fact, Gauguin could have given his friend Roy a still life of flowers and fruit.

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